How to Effectively Use Social Media as an Emergency Communication Tool

By Sue Boisvert, BSN, MHSA, CPHRM, FASHRM, Senior Risk Specialist

While many healthcare organizations have solid emergency plans, communication is often the most overlooked element. Emergency preparation has four stages: prepare, respond, recover, and mitigate. Effective emergency communication has six characteristics: simple, timely, accurate, repeated, credible, and consistent – many of which marry well with social media. Below, you’ll learn six ways to prepare now, so you can effectively leverage social media in your emergency communications when it matters most.
 
Step One: Determine Roles and Responsibilities
 
The public information officer and incident command center should be in charge of all emergency communication. Make sure that other team members know their communication responsibilities as well, including what they can post on social media, what they cannot post, and the importance of staying out of online debates. Also make sure everyone knows that any misinformation posted by others should be reported to management immediately.  
 
Step Two: Identify Stakeholders
 
In addition to identifying the people in charge of sending out emergency messages, make sure you identify the people who need to receive those messages. Stakeholders could include:
 
  • Patients and their families.
  • The general public.
  • Workers and partners.
  • First responders.
  • Law enforcement, including state, local and federal police agencies.
  • Public service agencies, such as the Red Cross.
  • The media.
  • Other agencies.
 
Step Three: Develop Social Channels
 
In addition to your own website and blog, determine which social media venues will be popular with your community. For example, according to Pew Research Center, Facebook tends to be popular across all age groups and is a favorite among older generations, while Instagram tends to be popular with young users. Twitter describes 80 percent of its users as affluent millennials. Tumblr and Reddit are other options to consider. Channels other than social media, such as the local school system, television, and radio, may also be appropriate for your community.
 
Once you select your social media venues, keep them active year-round with useful information and resources, such as information about flu shots and other health and safety issues. This way, people will follow your posts and think of you as a resource during a disaster.
 
Also pay attention to the social accounts of other agencies, such as community and state emergency planning agencies. Reach out to them, share their content, and learn how to reach them during an emergency. Cultivate strong relationships with other organizations and the media.
 
Step Four: Build an Emergency Resources Page on Your Website
 
Your website should include an emergency resource page that includes links to other sites that contain valuable information. For example, if the Red Cross has a shelter list, link to it rather than creating your own. It’s best to use reputable sources such as FEMA, the CDC, and the National Weather Service.
 
There are many apps that can be used in a disaster, such as Find Me and GasBuddy. Before you recommend one, have your IT team assess it for security issues, ease of use, and make sure the terms of use are reasonable. Add links to recommended apps to your emergency resources page.
 
Create an alert that you can quickly activate on your homepage to direct people to your emergency resources page.
 
Step Five: Determine and Draft Potential Content
 
Plan for different scenarios and the types of information that will need to be conveyed. This could include:
 
  • Closure of the facilities or that the organization is not accepting new patients.
  • A lack of water, electricity, or supplies.
  • Reminders to patients and other community members regarding what they should do.
  • Information about where people should go for help, including local shelters.
  • Links to important sources, such as the Red Cross or the local emergency planning authority.
 
Cultivate a voice that is the highly credible. It should convey accurate information in a straightforward, plain-language manner. Establish yourself as a trustworthy source.
 
By anticipating common scenarios and drafting posts ahead of time, you can save time and ensure a consistent tone later. During a crisis, it’s much easier to customize an existing message than it is write a post from scratch.
 
Step Six: Establish Emergency Message Frequency Guidelines
 
Emergency messages must be repeated to ensure that they are seen. Social media channels are flowing streams, and your message can quickly get lost behind other messages in audience feeds. By posting frequently throughout the day, you improve the odds of being seen. Establish guidelines for emergency posting frequency now, so you can easily reference your plan during a crisis.
 
Start Now
 
Preparation is the most important phase of communication. All other phases (respond, recover, and mitigate) will succeed or fail based on the strength of your initial preparation. For more information on this topic, visit the CDC’s Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) for training, manuals, and tools.

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